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Film Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

January 6, 2021 Leave a comment

The Invisible Man (2020; Directed by Leigh Whannell)

Very loosely based on the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name which was later made into a classic Universal Monsters movie by Frankenstein director James Whale in 1933The Invisible Man compellingly re-imagines the chilling and resonant tale of a megalomaniacal man who finds a way to become imperceptible to the human eye and uses this power to behave very poorly indeed. It’s written and directed by Australian genre movie veteran Leigh Whannell, who penned the first three Saw movies and the first four Insidious movies (directing the third) and gained some notice as a director of technical skill and vision with the 2018 cyberpunk actioner Upgrade. With such a pedigree, it should be no surprise that Whannell crafts a taut, unnerving, and often exciting take on the classic sci-fi/horror story that bares a B-movie soul with the backing of the aforementioned big studio Universal and hot horror producer Blumhouse. The movie apparently only cost $7 million, and it stretches those dollars impressively (and made a huge box-office profit in the process, ending as one of the top ten grossing movies of the pandemic-altered 2020).

It also stretches the ideas at the heart of Wells’ The Invisible Man impressively, rendering them into a contemporary narrative about abusive and controlling relationships, gaslighting, and toxic masculinity, as well as the impunity and (ironic) lack of transparency with which the wealthy and powerful operate in post-capitalist America. The titular figure is, in one of the very few adaptational carry-overs from the book, named Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen of the superb Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House plays him), and he’s a brilliant, rich, and narcissistically sociopathic optics industry genius who develops a high-tech bodysuit covered in tiny cameras that allows him to become completely invisible. He only really uses this tech to stalk and torment his ex-girlfriend Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who title aside is the real protagonist of the film.

We in the audience know none of these details in The Invisible Man‘s gripping opening sequence, during which Cecilia slips out of bed and creeps through Adrian’s sleek and expensive-looking coastal contempo-mansion, gathering items, seeking to escape, and being extremely careful not to make any noise whatsoever that might wake Adrian. It’s a masterfully tense scene (the dog bowl!) and it pulls you into Whannell’s vision right away (give credit also to cinematographer Stefan Duscio, who helps Whannell execute some audacious shots and gives the film a cool, liquidish palette). Numerous touches of canny visual storytelling, including key foreshadowing shots of Cecilia’s bottle of diazepam pills and a revealing trip into Adrian’s high-tech lab, provide key information, but truly Moss’ performance – survival-minded intelligence driven by deeply traumatized desperation – tells you all you really need to know emotionally and subtextually. This is a bad situation that this woman is in, and she needs to get out of it.

She does, with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Emily’s police officer friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), and James’ high-school-aged daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) who provide a safehouse for Cecilia and a semblance of surrogate-familial love. But Cecilia is deeply haunted and paranoid, reading online about webcam spying and not daring to even go as far as the mailbox in the fear of Adrian finding her. She seems to be given the ultimate reprieve with the report of Adrian’s death, but strange and unnerving things begin to happen after the initial rush of illusory security. A legal notice comes for her at James’ house despite no one apparently knowing that she’s there, which leads to the first in a series of low-boil confrontational meetings with Adrian’s brother and legal executor, Tom (Michael Dorman). Cecilia’s job interview is scuppered by a missing portfolio and a mysterious drug overdose. Emily receives a nasty, ties-cutting email from her that Cecilia has no memory of sending to her sister. And she begins to sense a strange presence in the Lanier home, accompanied by almost inaudible clicking and whirring sounds. Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian is not dead, and that he is watching her and sabotaging her life in revenge for leaving him, entirely unseen.

Whannell and Duscio accomplish this affect with little direct exposition at first, relying on Moss’ paranoid perceptiveness alongside inserted cuts and slow pans (reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s famous pan away from Travis Bickle’s awkward phone call in Taxi Driver) to empty corners and open doorways, inviting us to imagine that they are occupied by an invisible watcher at first and later on expecting us to understand that they certainly, frighteningly are. Horror maven that he is, Whannell drops stab-and-parry shocks with alacrity, and his kinetic, vividly perspective-based action direction during a violent scene in a mental treatment facility is the kind of thing that not only enervates audiences but makes studio producers sit up in their seats (perhaps unsurprisingly, Whannell’s next prospective credits are story/directing on a new version of The Wolfman and screenwriting on a remake of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York).

But The Invisible Man is working on another level, too. Cecilia is fleeing from and then standing up and fighting against a toxic, controlling abuser whose invisibility is wielded not only to torment her but to gaslight her as well, to make her insistence on his abuse seem to be unhinged and unrealistic. It seems so entirely obvious a thematic application of the implications of Wells’ book that it’s surprising that it hasn’t been drawn out so fully in this way before (“invisible guy is a sexually exploitative creep” has been out there, mind you, most recently with the Translucent character in the superhero-deconstructing TV series The Boys). Making Adrian Griffin a tech mogul adds a further layer. The wealthy elites of our world might as well be invisible given the lack of consequences for their damaging actions. The Invisible Man is a superbly crafted and excellent horror-action thriller but it also dramatizes women’s trauma powerfully and harrowingly. Whether it does so productively or with prurient exploitation is another question (one often asked of the new wave of politically-minded black horror like Us and Antebellum), but it does it very, very well.

Categories: Film, Reviews